/Winds of Change

Winds of Change

From Shaman’s Rock

By Jim Poling Sr.

The wind off the lake is furiously slapping the flag on the pole anchored in the little flower patch out front my place.

There’s nothing noteworthy about a flag moving in the wind. Except that it seems to be happening more often these days.

My flag is seldom still, even in the evenings when you expect it to be still. It often flaps during the night, waking me on occasion.

There’s no official data on whether we are experiencing more windy days, but we do know that wind speeds have been increasing. Researchers report that the global average wind speed has increased six per cent – from 7.0 to 7.4 miles per hour – since 2010.

Increased wind can be bad news. It can cause visible damage such as fallen trees and damaged buildings. There are other less visible, but serious, implications such as soil erosion and water evaporation.

The good news about more frequent, stronger winds is that we finally realize wind is an important energy alternative to pollution-producing fossil fuels.

It took us a long time. American naturalist Henry David Thoreau realized it almost 200 years ago, writing:

“Here is almost incalculable power at our disposal, yet how trifling the use we make of it! It only serves to turn a few mills, blow a few vessels across the ocean, and a few trivial ends besides. What a poor compliment do we pay to our indefatigable and energetic servant!”

Today, using wind to make electricity is a growth industry. The wind power market is up an estimated 14 per cent in the past 10 years.

The Global Wind Energy Council has reported record growth in the last two years. But the council says the industry is not growing fast enough to meet climate change goals set by governments.

It is not that there is not enough wind. The challenge is harnessing and distributing it.

The International Energy Agency says there is enough offshore wind to produce all the world’s future electrical power needs 11 times over. However, we don’t yet have ways of harnessing offshore winds and distributing the electricity they produce from miles out in the ocean to land-based power grids.

Wind energy may help reduce fossil fuel use and its environmental impacts. It does have its own environmental problems, however.

Environmentalists are concerned about the noise created by wind turbine blades. They also worry about visual aesthetics – wind farms spoiling views of beautiful landscapes. Large wind turbines are visible for 15 to 20 miles in clear and relatively flat areas.

Birds and bats flying into turbine blades is another problem. Joel Merriman, a wind specialist working with the American Bird Conservancy, says that 1.17 million birds are killed each year by wind turbines in the United States.

The is not much evidence to show harm to other wildlife, or to humans living near wind turbines. Some people believe that low-level turbine noise results in headaches, irritability, fatigue, dizziness, tinnitus and even more serious health problems.

There also is concern that with the growing number of wind turbines some could end up in locations that interfere with radar systems. These systems are widespread across North America and are important tools in air traffic control, weather forecasting and national air defence.

Numerous studies are being conducted to document any serious negative effects of wind energy, and how they might be mitigated. Finding turbine sites where good wind energy can be produced with minimal impacts on wildlife, humans or radar systems is a key part of that research.

It might all come down to having to accept some negative effects in exchange for a less polluted world and the increased destruction expected from continued global warming.

Environmental activist David Suzuki accepts that bird and bat kills are a part of creating necessary alternative energy.

“Global warming will kill birds and bats, as well as other species, in much greater numbers than wind power,” he has said.

There’s a lot of thinking and work to be done to sort all this out. Thankfully, none of it has to be done by me.

On nights when the wind blows hard, threatening to keep me awake, I’ll simply lower the flag.